During a career that spanned 45 years, Joan Crawford played the role of the glamorous movie star to perfection. Her adopted daughter Christina Crawford, who penned the memoir "Mommie Dearest," says her mother focused all of her attentions on being a movie star. "She wasn't educated, but she was smart," says Crawford. "Whatever you put your focus on is what you do well."
The new Turner Classic Movies documentary "Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star," premiering Thursday on the cable outlet, offers a frank, no-holds-barred portrait of the actress. It explores a film career that included 100 movies, as well as a personal life that involved numerous lovers, four marriages, alcoholism and four adopted children, of whom the two eldest--Christina and Christopher--were abused physically and verbally by Crawford.
Narrated by Anjelica Huston, the documentary features clips from Crawford's movies, including her Oscar-winning turn in "Mildred Pierce" as well as "The Women" and "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" There are also interviews with Christina Crawford, Crawford biographer Bob Thomas, actors Cliff Robertson and Anita Page, and director Vincent Sherman. The documentary will be accompanied by a 41-film tribute airing Thursdays during August.
Peter Fitzgerald, who wrote, directed and produced the 90-minute documentary, says he set out to offer a balanced and fair portrait of the actress, who was born into an impoverished, abusive family in 1906 and died of cancer in 1977. "I wanted to bring the whole story to the screen, including her obsessive-compulsiveness about cleanliness, the alcohol.... It's really important with an artist of this caliber to include all the levels of the chessboard. I just followed the chronological arc of her life with a little backtracking to fill in the early childhood. During that arc, we switch between the spiritual, emotional and physical throughout."
Because of her beauty, says Fitzgerald, Crawford is often underrated as an actress.
"I think one of her great gifts as an actress was to change herself not just for her roles, but also for the eras she was in as a movie star," he says. "She was unique and different in so many of her parts. We saw that she came from nowhere. Look, the camera doesn't lie. We knew she was from the backwoods and pretended to be a movie star, and we still loved her. It was part of her charm."
Christina Crawford says that she can divorce her mother from the movie star but still finds it difficult to view some of her later films like "Harriet Craig" and "Queen Bee," in which she played haranguing control freaks. "She was like that in the house," says Crawford. "Her later films were fairly dark and very violent. A lot of that was almost a direct translation of how she was in the house. When I was growing up, those films were almost impossible to watch. Now, with the advantage of so much time, it's almost like looking at somebody I knew but wasn't that close to."
Sherman, one of the top filmmakers at Warner Bros. in the 1940s and '50s, directed both Bette Davis and Crawford. He made three films with Crawford, including "The Damned Don't Cry," and the two also had a turbulent three-year love affair.
"I loved working with her," says Sherman, a dapper 96. "She knew exactly what I was trying to get in a scene. She knew how to capture what was the essential thing in the scene."
Though married during his affair with Crawford, Sherman says Crawford wanted him to marry her. "I knew that it was not for me," he says. "I realized that big stars like Davis and Crawford had a constant need that they were not even aware of, I'm sure, for admiration, for congratulations, for love, for attention, for pleasure. You need a real sophistication to survive and rise above wanting that every day in your life."
Both actresses, Sherman notes, were abandoned by their fathers at a very early age. "My feeling is that a girl's first love should be their father. When that doesn't happen, something else sets in--a distrust of men. That was both true of Davis and Crawford. They basically distrusted men."
"Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star" can be seen Thursday at 5 and 8 p.m. on TCM. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for younger children). Also airing Thursday are the early Crawford films "Across to Singapore" at 6:30 p.m., "The Unknown" at 9:30 p.m. and "West Point" at 10:30 p.m.